IT WAS one of those things that seemed a good idea at the time. “We’re having a school trip to Wakehurst Place with Year 3, Father John,” said a teacher at a school where I am governor. “Would you like to come?”
“How nice,” I thought, innocent that I am. “I’ll take a book for the journey, and pop off later to a tea-room.”
On the day itself, I was, with everybody else, herded on to the big yellow bus. The teacher came up to me: “Here’s a list of your children with name-stickers,” she said, and smiled sweetly. “Be strict with them.”
So it was that at this Sussex outpost of Kew Gardens, I found myself attached to a group of six excitable seven-year-olds, looking expectant. “Now you’ve got to keep an eye on me,” I said hopefully, “I might wander off.” They weren’t fooled: “No, Father John,” one of them said with weary patience, “You’re supposed to look after us.”
So began a day of quiet, low-grade panic on my part as I tried to keep an eye on my group, supervise their workshops, and contain their mayhem at lunch-hour. The most stressful part was trying to maintain their enthusiasm while making pictures out of fruit slices and roughly chopped vegetables.
Difficult funerals I can take in my stride; jittery brides I can soothe like skittish ponies; even PCC ructions I can pacify with smiling serenity; but present me with a recalcitrant seven-year-old clutching a carrot and half a badly bruised kiwi-fruit, and I’m lost. I know my limitations.
I TAKE my hat off to modern teachers, for their expertise and patience; even more do I admire that army of dedicated amateurs who run our Sunday schools. Our own Sunday school is small and embattled, but it keeps plugging away, and we are so lucky in the people who give up their time to run it.
A real frustration is when the little ones — especially the boys — get to the age when all their school friends are playing rugby/football/cricket on Sundays. I remember thinking, during the Rugby World Cup final on 22 November 2003, that Jonny Wilkinson’s last-minute goal-kick, glorious though it was, would prove be the deathknell of many a Sunday school up and down the country.
My previous church, St George’s, in Newbury, has started a children’s club immediately after the morning service, which pulls in a good 20 or so, which is splendid. St Mary Magdalene’s, in our parish, has a monthly Saturday morning kids disco with a ten-minute God-slot in the middle which gets the same sort of numbers; and our parish children’s holiday club is going from strength to strength.
In my bleaker moments, however, I worry about Sunday morning junior church: it can sometimes feel like trying to defend a lovingly built sandcastle against the oncoming tide.
‘Who art in tat’
I AM terribly proud of one of our older “Scooma” (Moulsecoomb) lads, Wesley. Until the lure of Saturday-night-in-Brighton clubbing made his Sunday mornings generally comatose, he was one of our most regular attenders, and still staggers in occasionally. Indeed, he was roped in on Good Friday to play Jesus in our ecumenical act of witness on the Green: the Brighton Evening Argus quoted me saying rather blithely: “We’re crucifying Wesley this year — he’s really up for it.”
While we were waiting for his cue, he proudly told me about his next project — a large tattoo. His parents and his five brothers are great tattoo fans, but I was somewhat taken aback by Wes’s choice. “Farver John, I’m going to ’ave ‘Only God can judge me’ tattooed on me chest.”
I asked him why he’d chosen that particular text. “Because I believe it. God’s really important to me. And I’m gonna have a crucifix on me back.” He then sallied forth, carrying his cross.
This all came back to me a few days ago, when our curate, James, told me he had seen Wes on duty at the checkout at Asda, chatting amiably to the customers. He called over: “James, James, come ’ere. Look at this!” He rolled up his sleeve and proudly displayed his latest tat: the Lord’s Prayer, etched up his arm.
In Brighton, you encounter a myriad of strange tattoos and disconcerting piercings, and I find it quite touching that this 19-year-old is happily joining in the city culture and cheerfully witnessing to his faith at the same time. St Paul says in Galatians “I bear on my body the marks of Christ”, and, although not exactly stigmata, in his own way, I think Wes is having a go at doing the same. Bless him.
The Revd John Wall is Team Rector in the Moulsecoomb Team Ministry in Brighton.